The latest film from British director Paul Greengrass focuses on the true story of Richard Phillips, a captain whose cargo ship was hijacked by Somalian pirates four years ago. The plot follows Phillips as he firstly attempts (and succeeds) at protecting his ship and its crew from the attack, before allowing himself to be taken hostage – as the pirates’ somewhat reluctant loot – aboard a lifeboat that the Africans intend to steer back to the Somalian coast. Meanwhile, the US navy track the boat and ‘bargain’ with those on board, as they make efforts to rescue Captain Phillips.
Greengrass’s text is one of two films that I saw over the last 24 hours containing themes of isolation and desperation, the other being Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, but I must say that from the two, Captain Phillips was the much more compelling work of cinema. To the casual viewer, the film unfolds like a typical action/adventure narrative, full of the usual edge-of-seat agitation and nail-biting anxiety.
However, underneath this lies a piece of work ripe for further analysis. To tell a story such as this, it would be easy to go down the well-trodden path of US superiority, where the Navy SEALs inevitably and heroically save the day. This subject is present throughout the film, but Greengrass maintains a level of impartiality towards each party – both American and Somalian – which makes it immensely difficult to take sides in this conflict. Instead, the director raises subtle political and social issues with the audience – such as the effectiveness of foreign aid, and the disparities between the world’s wealthiest and poorest nations. That Phillip’s tells Muse (the pirate’s leader) that the Somalian cannot be just a fisherman and a pirate, is very telling; for these men there really is no better way of making a living: as they mention, their waters are so over-fished by foreign countries that there is little food left for themselves.
Throughout Phillips’s interactions with his captors, Muse remains true to his word. Their is an honesty and willingness from him to believe in the captain’s instructions that can only be born out of desperation and a lack of options. As he tells Phillips (referred to by Muse as ‘Irish’), he is not Al-Qaeda, he loves America, and states he will go there once making his fortune. There is no agenda on the cards, just want of a better life. The culmination of this is that eventually, the navy shoot to kill all on board the lifeboat, ensuring Phillips’s safety. After having kept the captain alive for days, their lives are taken from them in a second, leaving Phillips splattered from head to toe in their blood. When finally rescued and taken to the US ship’s hospital wing, the doctor asks him if all this blood is his own, to which he cannot reply, but breaks down both physically and mentally.
These final scenes were tough to watch, and were emotionally conflicting. It was surprisingly difficult to feel good following Phillip’s rescue due to the abrupt death of the Somalians whom did not fail to keep their end of the bargain, and I got the sense that he felt the same way. That Captain Phillips managed to tell a somewhat straightforward tale in such a gripping fashion, whilst also raising weighty issues as additional food for thought, makes Greengrass’s directorial effort one of this year’s most intelligent blockbuster(ish) film.
Of course, we must acknowledge the flawless work of the first-time actor Somalians, whom lended a level of authenticity to the text that would not have existed otherwise.
I must also add, that this work serves as a reminder of Tom Hanks’s acting ability; for it is difficult to imagine any other Hollywood star being able to almost solely carry a 2 1/2 hour film – as of course he has done in the past (Wilson!). The naturalness of Hanks’s talent in Captain Phillips makes it easy to forget that he is indeed completing a job as an actor in a film, and the intensity of his post-rescue emotions left me unable to speak for quite some time following my Cineworld departure.
I’m sure the film will not have such an effect on many viewers, but Captain Phillips works as both thought-provoking cinema and mindless entertainment.